Strangelove, or How Ernst Jünger
Learned to Love Total War
THOMAS ROHKR ÄMER
In World War I, the scale and intensity of destruction gave rise to the term total war. Quantity alone did not, however, make World War I the great "seminal catastrophe" of the twentieth century; this great conflict also frustrated intentions, defied attempts to control it, and turned every participant into its sorcerer's apprentice. Individual heroism could not contend with the machine-gun. Military ingenuity could find no productive alternative to the resource-draining stalemate on the western front; and proud idealism counted less in the war's outcome than did technology and production levels.
Under these circumstances the enthusiasm of August 1914 quickly evaporated. The German volunteers of August 1914 experienced a shock. These largely middle-class men had believed that the war would stimulate idealism and unity; instead, they soon experienced unjust treatment from their officers, tensions with soldiers of humbler social backgrounds, war-profiteers, and loud-mouthed beer-hall patriots with simplistic slogans. They searched for adventure and heroism, but instead they found that modern warfare demanded endurance, discipline, and the precise execution of limited tasks within a huge machinery of destruction. Their contacts with home soon taught them that their sacrifice could not protect their loved ones from hardship. Thus for many soldiers, the "ideas of 1914" soon rang false; and defeat after four years of propaganda made it even more difficult for them to find meaning in the slaughter.
World War I undermined old convictions and brought about a fundamental cultural reorientation. Formerly confined to a small intellectual avantgarde, doubts about progress, moral convictions, the benevolence of human nature, and the integrity of public officials gained broad popular currency. The scale of destruction and the experience of slaughter out of human control raised profound questions about modernity, or at least about what had gone wrong.